I am a meat-eater and an animal lover, which on paper does look rather like a conflict waiting to happen. And there are times when no matter how cute an animal is, or how much we tend to anthropomorphize them, the first thought that comes to mind is, lets eat! I understand the requirements of the native people living off the land, especially those on the coastal region where the ocean provides so much. Kayaking and seal hunting have gone hand in hand for centuries. Kayaks provide speed and stealth, which comes in handy when sneaking up on skittish seals who don’t want to be dinner and clubbing or harpooning them.
I discovered this first hand a few years ago while paddling around my ‘backyard’ waters of Salt Spring Island with a couple of friends. The most common creature you will encounter on any day paddle in the Gulf Islands are the seals. Both the Harbour and Leopard seals inhabit the local waters. At random they will pop up through the surface of the water like submarine periscopes. They turn towards you and stare with those large black eyes, heads slick and shiny and wet, they snort and swim with you, then dive only to reappear usually somewhere behind your kayak. They are curious and always wanting a better look at the strange floaty humans with long flapping flippers. They are happy and well-protected creatures. The seals, not so much the humans and we can only hope that an hour or two of floatation therapy will cure what ails them. The seals have forgotten the evils set upon them by us, clubbing, spearing, harpooning and look at us with side-eyed awe, as we do when we see them basking on rocks in summer, or swimming all around our kayaks. It is the cuteness that will get you every time.
Rounded Chivers Point on Wallace Island for the long return run down the long backside of the island with Galiano Island to our left, the conversation was about the seals and the local wildlife rehabilitation center on Salt Spring. Their guests, among other creatures and birds are usually seals rescued from the area after injury or abandonment due to the death of a parent has left babies helpless and alone. The couple paddling with me were a couple, my buddy and his girlfriend who after listening to my talk got her to thinking that every seal pup we heard that evening was surely alone. And we heard plenty of them as we made our way passed Cabin Bay to a section of small cuts and coves. Her concerns raised the questions of when it is time for human intervention, or when to leave well enough alone. For the most part it is an assumption that a seal pup is orphaned and usually the mother is not far away foraging for dinner.
The sounds the pups make are pitiful and are similar to the cries of a human baby which only adds to the human element to nurture and save the pup from an awful demise. A simple rule of thumb is to ‘report them, and don’t touch them’. The pup is then monitored for several days before anyone moves in. This also causes some stress to the animal adding to the debate because now the truly abandoned seal is fragile from hunger and will require more intensive care. All in all it is a no win situation for the seals when outnumbered by us and powerboat with deadly propellers.
It was mid-summer and evening so we heard many seals giving that eerie cry around us. The water was calm and the last warmth of the sunset was reaching us. Our timing would be perfect for the full moon rise over the southern islands, which would light our way back to the launch site. We had lots of time to dilly dally in the notches and coves, chatting and enjoying the best of paddling conditions. The sky began changing in increments of yellow to red, purple to blue that eventually would merge with the coming darkness of the night sky. To make things even better we had the gentle nudge of current in our favour, all was well.
The silence broken by a sudden and very loud cry from the darkness closer to shore. I looked but couldn’t see the cause but knew it was a pup. At that moment, we all lifted out paddles and drifted in the current. Falling into seal-hunter modes. Then I saw him, a small black head moving out to deeper waters away from the sheltered safety of the rocks where its mother had left it. In a second it was on me. No I mean, ON me! Before I could get my paddle in the water he rammed the side of my kayak. He floated there looking up, shiny-eyed and I couldn’t find a safe place to put the blade to the water without his involvement. I was stuck. He was far enough away after a minute and I started to get away when he hit me a second time, hard. What was this little guy up to? If he thought he could nurse off my fibreglass hull he was out of luck! My friends farther out from shore sat watching not knowing how, or what, if anything they could do to help me out. Now my small black attacker was boarding my kayak attempting I suppose to jump into my lap. The cute fuzzy sympathetic creature was at close look nothing but claws and teeth and screaming, and adorable big black eyes. His teeth clamped hard on the rubber trim but soon he lost his grip and fell back.
There are a few risks in sea kayaking and we pack them away in the back of our minds every time we put on the PFD and grab a paddle. The list of items such as capsizing and not being able to self-rescue or roll, drowning, sinking, squashing by fast-moving power boats or slow-moving freighters. I never would have added killer baby seal attacks to my list of ‘what-ifs’.
He came at me one last time and this time almost made it up to the cockpit before slipping back down into the dark waters. “He really wanted a kayak ride!” I laughed, nervously. He clamped on again with his teeth and scrambled with scratching claws leaving some marks in the gel-coat before falling off again. I turned as I paddled fast to get some distance between me and my little angry friend. My buddy’s girlfriend was in tears. This was only her second time kayaking and it was all too much. She is the type that would stop in the road to scoop up a frog and carry it to the curb. She was certain my attacker was an abandoned and very frightened seal pup and we should do something! The only way I could settle her nerves was to agree to attempt to keep tabs on the little one for the next few days. I had no intention of doing that. I knew from experience that the adult was near by.
“Are you sure it really has a mother, Dave?” she sniffed. I nodded but the wailing in the background was not helping my case. In a few more minutes a larger seal surfaced near the pup and the crying turned to low murmuring moans. I saw the baby turning and pointing a small flipper in my directions as if to say,
“Over there! He tried to club me mommy!”